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Cuba to host international LGBT conference

Critics of island’s human rights record criticize organizers



Mariela Castro, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Mariela Castro, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Mariela Castro speaks during a press conference in Philadelphia on May 4, 2013. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

More than 400 advocates from across the world will travel to Cuba next week to attend the first international LGBT conference that will take place in the Communist country.

The sixth International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association for Latin America and the Caribbean (ILGALAC) Regional Conference will take place in the beach resort of Varadero. A number of parties and other events are scheduled to take place in nearby Havana, the Cuban capital, during the gathering.

Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who is the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX,) is president of the local committee that organized the ILGALAC conference.

Mariela Castro did not return the Washington Blade’s request for comment. CENESEX’s website prominently features information about the ILGALAC conference that includes a preliminary agenda.

“As the host country for the sixth ILGALAC Regional Conference, Cuba is not exempt from the problems of the region’s LGBTI communities,” states the organization. “The humanistic nature of the Cuban Revolution has focused on the human being in his teleological purposes since its beginning. Although the Cuban LGBTI movement does not have the organization of other international movements, the fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the country is now evident with more impact and achievements.”

Robyn Ochs, a bisexual advocate and writer who is a member of the MassEquality Board of Directors, will appear on a panel with Indian writer Vikram Seth and Víctor Hugo Robles, a Chilean LGBT rights advocate known as “El Che de los Gays” or “Che (Guevara) of the Gays.”

Mariela Castro is scheduled to moderate it.

“I’ve long been interested in transnational conversations,” Ochs told the Blade, noting the conference is the first time she will have traveled to Cuba. “I hope to learn a great deal.”

Wilfred Labiosa, who is another MassEquality board member, will also travel to Cuba and present at the ILGALAC conference.

“We can learn so much; how to organize and mobilize as a cohesive group instead of people pulling their way to the way that they want and not as a group,” he said. “The Socialist regime can teach us so much about organizing and mobilizing.”

Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a gay Cuban blogger who writes under the pen name Paquito el de Cuba, will attend the conference alongside CENESEX and another group affiliated with it. He told the Blade in an e-mail he feels the gathering will allow Cuban advocates to gain a better understanding of international LGBT rights movements.

“It will increase visibility for the continents’ other LGBTI movements and Cuban efforts and strategies towards respect of freedom of sexual orientation and gender identity and stopping discrimination motivated by them,” said Rodríguez.

ILGA Co-Secretary General Gloria Careaga Pérez told the Blade earlier this week from México there is “a great enthusiasm” on the part of the Latin American and Caribbean advocates who plan to travel to the island.

“I think that ILGALAC 2014 will be a great experience from which there is a lot to learn,” she said. “Latin America today is considered one of the most promising regions for the LGBTI community. The movement has matured in a clear way. In the great majority of the countries there has been a respectful dialogue with the government that has made it possible for not only legal advances, but the orchestration of public policies and a greater visibility and respect for the LGBTI condition.”

Anti-LGBT discrimination, violence persist amid legal gains

Same-sex couples are currently able to legally marry in Mexico City, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, the Dutch Caribbean the French islands of Saint Martin, Saint Barthélemy, Guadeloupe and Martinique and French Guiana. Marriage, civil unions and other forms of relationship recognition for same-sex couples have begun to gain traction in Colombia, Perú, Chile and a number of other Mexican states in recent months.

Two women in Puerto Rico in March filed a federal lawsuit seeking recognition of their Massachusetts marriage in the U.S. commonwealth. Mariela Castro has previously stated she supports marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Many Latin American countries include sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression in their anti-discrimination and hate crimes laws, but anti-LGBT violence remains a serious problem.

A report that Global Rights, D.C.-based international human rights group, published late last year noted trans Brazilians accounted for slightly more than half of the 300 reported LGBT murder victims in the country in 2012 — and an estimated 52 percent of them were people of color. The murder of a cross-dressing teenager near the Jamaican resort city of Montego Bay last summer further underscored the rampant anti-LGBT violence and discrimination that exists in the country.

Jamaica and Belize are among the 11 English-speaking countries in Central America and the Caribbean in which homosexuality remains criminalized, although their sodomy laws have been challenged in court.

“We’re very keen as a Caribbean regional network to participate in the conference, to be well-represented and to bring Cuba into the regional network,” said Colin Robinson of CAISO, an LGBT advocacy group in Trinidad and Tobago. “We’re eager to partner with relevant partners on the ground in Cuba.”

Kenita Placide of United and Strong, Inc., a St. Lucian LGBT advocacy group, will attend the ILGALAC conference.

Both she and Robinson have applauded Cuba on its LGBT rights record that includes the passage of a proposal late last year that seeks to amend the country’s labor law to ban anti-gay employment discrimination.

The Communist Party of Cuba in 2012 approved a resolution against anti-LGBT discrimination.

Mariela Castro’s supporters note she successfully lobbied the Cuban government to begin offering free sex-reassignment surgery under the country’s national health care system in 2008. They also credit Cuba’s condom distribution campaign and sexual education curriculum with producing one of the world’s lowest HIV rates.

“We have been following the success of Cuba and how they are open to work with and recognize LGBT persons,” Placide told the Blade on Friday. “CENESEX, although not involved in a lot of the Caribbean work directly, is looked to as a leader in activism on gay rights, thanks to the guidance of Mariela Castro.”

“Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of the current Cuban president, has been able to influence that,” added José Ramón, a Venezuelan LGBT rights advocate who has lived in Spain since violent clashes between supporters of President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition broke out in February. “It is also positive because a good part of the movements that will take part in the conference are sympathetic to the Cuban government.”

Robles described the ILGALAC conference as a “unique, significant and historic opportunity.”

“At the same time, Cuba and its diverse organizations and public institutions have become open and shown solidarity with ILGALAC activists in an example of valiant social, political, community and institutional integration,” he told the Blade.

Critics of Cuban government criticize conference organizers

ILGALAC has come under criticism from those who feel the conference should not take place in Cuba because of the country’s human rights record.

“Hosting a conference on LGBT rights is just another farcical attempt by the Cuban regime to pretend they care about anyone’s rights,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told the Blade in a statement. “The sad reality is that the Cuban people are harassed, beaten and bullied for having a point of view that differs from the regime’s. This desperate move to seem tolerant does not even come close to obscuring the repressive reality on the island.”

The Florida Republican who was born in Cuba last May blasted Equality Forum, a Philadelphia-based LGBT advocacy group, over its decision to honor Mariela Castro.

Ignacio Estrada Cepera, who founded the Cuban League Against AIDS in 2005, was also critical of ILGALAC’s decision to hold its conference in Cuba.

His wife, Wendy Iriepa Díaz, a trans woman who used to work for CENESEX, told the Blade last summer while in D.C. they feel Mariela Castro “totally manipulates the (Cuban) LGBT community.”

Estrada repeatedly noted during the trip the Cuban government forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.

Leannes Imbert Acosta of the Cuban LGBT Platform claimed authorities in 2012 detained her as she tried to bring materials to CENESEX on a planned exhibit on forced labor camps to which the government sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service during the 1960s. Former Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2010 apologized for sending gay men to the camps known as Military Units to Aid Production or by their Spanish acronym UMAPs.

Estrada, Iriepa and other Cuban LGBT rights advocates who work independently from Mariela Castro and CENESEX say they continue to face harassment from the authorities.

“This event is the worst response to what is happening on the island and a mockery to the true Cuban LGBT community,” Estrada told the Blade from Miami.

Two staffers from Caribe Afirmativo, a Colombian LGBT advocacy group, who are already in Havana are meeting with members of the Free Rainbow Alliance of Cuba who are not affiliated with CENESEX. The group on Friday issued a press release that criticized Mariela Castro and ILGALAC for not inviting them to the conference.

“The Cuban authorities, through the National Center of Sexual Education (CENESEX,) through its director’s political use of family ties and personal aura, try to control, manipulate and win international legitimacy as promoters and guaranters of rights for the LGBTI community.”

Hernando Muñoz of Colombia Diversa, another Colombian LGBT advocacy group, told the Blade during a telephone interview from Bogotá, the country’s capital, before traveling to Cuba for the ILGALAC conference that he is aware of criticisms over the island’s human rights record. He and Mariela Castro attended a 2010 conference in Madrid during which he said she tried to say Cuba was “perfect” and “everything was going great for homosexuals.”

“I don’t think so,” he said.

Other conference attendees criticized the U.S. over its policy towards Cuba that includes a decades’ long economic and travel embargo.

“Cuba is more than what some group of (Miami) Cubans say it is,” said Labiosa. “It is a country full of rich culture, friendly people and a government that wants to bring change under these horrible conditions perpetuated by this relic U.S. embargo.”

“It is a 55-year-old dinosaur that should never have been implemented, was never effective and should long ago have been lifted,” added Ochs. “It is arbitrary: Why Cuba and why not countries such as Iran, Nigeria, Russia, Uganda or all of the other countries with abysmal human rights records, specifically toward LGBT people.”

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards



Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade


A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami



Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)


MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

















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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness



Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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